‘I don’t know of any other operation that has these resources available,’ says hotel director and head chef Peter Niemann of his place of work. ‘We grow our own grains, fruit and nuts and use what the forest gives us. Such good fortune is rare in Germany.’ What specifically do the estate and the forest have to offer? ‘I could go on and on,’ he answers with a chuckle. Back in 2017, when he first saw the Hotel Hohenhaus with its castle and picturesque surroundings in Herleshausen in the German state of Hesse, he realised what potential was hidden here. Niemann wanted to work with the owners’ family to create a special place that had more to offer than just outstanding food. In addition to the restaurant Sushi & Family, the Hohenhaus Grill has a Michelin green star and the gourmet restaurant La Vallée Verte has earned a red star. The plan was to focus on sustainability.
Herbs and mushrooms from their own forest
‘The family that lets us use Hohenhaus has owned this property for over 100 years and they manage the forest,’ Niemann says. The estate draws its drinking water from 3 mineral water wells. Various types of grains and potatoes as well as fruit such as cherries and apricots are cultivated in the grounds. The kitchen uses wild herbs, berries and mushrooms from the forest. Hohenhaus maintains private hunting grounds where it employs hunters and raises ‘Braunes Bergschaf’ sheep, an endangered domestic breed. The restaurants do their part by offering the meat on their menus. ‘That makes the flock profitable and the estate can enlarge it,’ Niemann says. The number of animals has now doubled. Even though the resources were there, sustainability had to be redefined when he arrived at Hohenhaus. Using their own sheep rather than importing meat from Ireland, killing the animals in their own slaughterhouse and utilising them – ‘this was a process that took hard work to build up,’ the head chef says. ‘Today, the sheep travel 180 metres from the pasture to the slaughterhouse to the plate.’
Niemann can’t fulfil all his guests’ culinary desires, nor does he want to. ‘We don’t serve Easter lamb, for example,’ he admits. ‘It simply isn’t sustainable to slaughter such a young animal, and it goes against everything I believe.’ He describes his cuisine aptly as ‘honest, aromatic and authentic’. He basically takes his cues from what the fields and forests have to offer. ‘It’s important to me to be guided by nature in my work. I pay attention to what it can provide.’ There are fresh cherries from the estate 4 or 5 weeks a year, and the blackberries and raspberries from the forest also have their season. That’s why the berries, for example, are not picked until 3 p.m., when all the reservations are in, so that just enough for the registered guests are gathered.
Circular economy and regional sourcing
The hotel’s sustainability strategy also incorporates the idea of a circular economy: the wheat, for instance, is used to bake bread for the patrons, and whatever is left on the plates is dried in the waste heat generated in the kitchen and fed to the animals. As for the animals, they are slaughtered and utilised completely, from nose to tail. ‘If an animal is going to be killed, it should at least be used entirely,’ Niemann says. That also applies to the wild game: ‘We have instructed the hunters to bring us the tongues and some of the innards as well.’ Whatever does not land on the plates in the gourmet restaurant La Vallée Verte is made into a hearty rolled roast, for example, in the Hohenhaus Grill. ‘Nose to tail’ applies literally when a part such as a deer’s snout makes its way into a ragout.
Of course, even an estate such as Hohenhaus can’t produce all its food itself. ‘Regional sourcing is very important to me,’ Niemann says, referring to his suppliers. Most of them are located within a 10-kilometre radius. He knows all the regional suppliers personally and is well acquainted with the processing and quality of their products. And he aims to pass this knowledge on to his employees. That’s why everyone from the reception, housekeeping and building maintenance staff all the way to the trainee chefs has watched the suppliers at work.
Large suppliers like METRO help us to reduce our carbon footprint in the procurement of thousands of small items
Close relationships with suppliers
Niemann takes an even broader view of sustainability and regionality, however: ‘The social aspect is at least as important to me as all the rest. That’s why I support mostly regional tradespeople and suppliers and give something back to the region – on both the human and the business level.’ The same goes for his staff of around 30. ‘I want my staff to take the idea of sustainability further and live this philosophy out at home, too,’ he explains. He fosters this in ways like having a box of organic vegetables sent home to anyone who wants one each week.
The restaurateur is forced to buy in only a very few foods from further away. But even with those, he is mindful of sustainability. ‘With fish, for example, our guests want to see something besides trout on the menu, and I simply can’t get that here,’ Niemann says. He buys other varieties straight from the fishermen in places like Skagen, Denmark. Fish lovers also benefit from Niemann’s connections with friends and family in Brittany and the regular trips he makes to France’s Atlantic coast. He has a network of suppliers there as well, whose family traditions he supports and whose sense of good food he shares. Alongside them, a major supplier such as METRO also fits in with the sustainability concept at the Hotel Hohenhaus. How so? ‘Large suppliers like METRO help us to reduce our carbon footprint in the procurement of thousands of small items. They are professionals who put all that together for us so we don’t have to drive everywhere ourselves. And we can focus on what we do exceptionally well here at home.’
For Peter Niemann, the journey to sustainability is far from over, however. Energy is another area where the hotel is setting new standards. Currently, all the electricity that comes from the wall sockets is green. The estate’s 1,900 m² solar energy system is being expanded in its second phase to 2,200 m² to make the heating for the hotel pool not just carbon neutral but carbon free. Vehicle charging stations and the hotel itself are also to be supplied with electricity generated onsite. ‘During the lockdown, we invested quite a lot, including modernising all the technology in the kitchen and the hotel.’ In the future, Peter Niemann also wants to cultivate poppyseed plants to use for baking and to make oil. That’s about as self-sufficient as it gets.